Never Ask Directions Again
In the space of just three years, soon after the accuracy of the 30-year-old global positioning system (GPS) was narrowed to just one meter in 2004, sales of personal navigation devices (PNDs) exploded by 200 percent—and that doesn’t include the equally expanding market for cell phones equipped with GPS capabilities. The new generation of large-screen smartphones is advancing the spread of this suddenly indispensible technology. Aside from getting you from point A to point B with greater alacrity, thanks to voice-prompted turn-by-turn directions and traffic updates, new smartphone applications use location to identify nearby services and amenities. Emergency workers can now quickly triangulate the location of crime or accident victims. Parents can know where their children are, stolen items can be easily recovered, and criminals more easily tracked. Like any technology, however, society pays for the benefits with trade-offs: serious privacy issues are being raised about the inability to disable some GPS capabilities.
Three decades ago, however, military and government bigwigs didn’t think a GPS system would work at all, nor did they anticipate that, even if it could, the bitterly competitive armed services could work together to design the system without outside help. One self-described “lowly colonel,” Bradford Parkinson, however, managed to navigate the satellite navigation system through the labyrinths of government and military naysayers and bureaucratic inertia.
Look, Up in the Sky
While working for MIT’s division of fire control and army radar, Ivan Getting had led the team that developed the tracking radar which helped the Allies destroy 95 percent of the V-1 rockets Germany launched at England in the waning days of World War II. Afterward, he became vice president of research at Raytheon. During the early panicky days of Sputnik, Getting promoted the idea of using a system of satellites to track any moving object. But the idea was expensive and had to wait for the space program of the 1960s to provide the necessary technology.
By the early 1970s it was clear that some aspects of Getting’s original plan were technically unfeasible. Several competing ideas emerged, and the battling projects deadlocked until a serendipitous weekend meeting in November 1972 between a senior official at the Department of Defense, Malcolm R. Currie, who was a fan of the project, and an equally enthusiastic 37-year-old Air Force colonel and MIT and Stanford graduate, Bradford Parkinson. After four hours of spirited conversation, the executive decided to help the colonel resurrect the Air Force proposal.
This being a military project, Parkinson still had political as well as technical hoops to jump through. In August 1973 a defense review council voted to end the project; but immediately afterward, Currie convinced Parkinson to reconstitute GPS as a joint-services project.
Over the Labor Day weekend, Parkinson holed up in the Pentagon with a dozen military and university engineers. On Monday morning the group produced a seven-page paper that outlined what would eventually become the GPS system. Armed with a fleshed-out version of the Pentagon-produced proposal, Parkinson spent the next three months on the road to convince the powers that be. In December 1973 the same defense review council that had turned him down four months earlier gave him the go-ahead.
By 1978, after surviving several more attempts to kill the project, Parkinson’s confidence paid off, and upon seeing the successful launch of the first NAVSTAR GPS satellites, he left the military to first go into teaching. Later he worked at Rockwell to help develop the Space Shuttle. After a research stint at Stanford University and several other high-level private-sector jobs, Parkinson now sits on the boards of directors of several navigation-related companies.
Removing the Limitations
To discourage potential U.S. enemies from using the system for nefarious purposes, a Selective Availability (SA) degradation was imposed on the system. Handheld consumer GPS units finally became available to consumers in 1989, but the SA restrictions constrained both the effectiveness and, of course, the value of the few commercial products available, units primarily used by mariners and hikers.
In 2000 the SA restrictions were lifted by President Clinton, sharpening accuracy to 15 meters, around the same time the first handheld units to include city street maps became available. In 2004 Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) technology improved overall accuracy to within three meters. Suddenly, GPS could be used for precise turn-by-turn directions, precipitating the current demand for GPS units—and exempting macho drivers from the embarrassment of having to stop and consult the locals for directions.
Future Trends Box:
After just a couple of years of being in vogue, dedicated personal navigation devices (PNDs) are quickly giving way to navigation applications for smartphones, such as the iPhone and phones running the Google Android operating system. Cell phones offer one major advantage over dedicated PNDs: their connection to the cellular network. This enables Assisted GPS, or A-GPS, which supplements GPS triangulation with cell-tower triangulation, to provide faster and more precise data for location-based applications than satellites can supply alone. Cell connectivity also enables the navigation software to update itself continually with new information on roads and “points of interest”—restaurants with current menus; gas stations with up-to-the-minute price-per-gallon data; local theaters listing current show times; banks; hospitals; and more—and, perhaps most critical for drivers, local traffic updates. Thanks to these capabilities, navigation software for smartphones is now often more sophisticated than even the most capable dedicated device.
Key Product Box:
A decade ago, most consumer GPS devices supplied only latitude and longitude laid over topographical and marine maps. In the fall of 1998 the Garmin StreetPilot was the first portable/car-mounted GPS unit to include street maps. The one-pound StreetPilot, equipped with a monochrome LCD screen, was priced at $636.35, but its built-in Navteq base map covered the entire United States. It sold with city/region-specific MetroGuide cartridges affording street-level detail and point-of-interest data for $99–$199.